The Ride of Your Life

Someone wise once said that life is just one crushing disappointment after another, and then you die. Or was it someone depressed? I can’t remember. But one thing is for sure: once every couple of years, you’re going to wake up on Christmas morning and find that instead of a bar of Swiss Chocolate or another finger-nail clipper, there’s a lump of coal in your stocking. Our work as spiritual practitioners is to squeeze that lump of coal in your hands until it becomes sweet sweet lemonade.

After five years as a monk, I still have not developed any supernatural powers. What’s even worse, no one has tried to teach me any. I’ve waited patiently for a shadowy figure to approach me in the forest. I’ve stared intently at the elder brothers mentally repeating, “I’m ready.” And when it became clear that no one was interested in what I had to think, I started verbally dropping hints. For instance if I’m in a conflict with someone I might say, “How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader! But I’d like to be…”

But all to no avail. I thought about writing a formal request to the community, but I figure there’s a reason that all this superhuman stuff is veiled in darkness. So in an act of desperation, I’ve started my own personal training program. It’s still in the early stages, and there’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s a combination of common sense tips and inspiration from that book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I haven’t read it, but I feel like I get the gist of it just from the title. After a few intense weeks of training, and my first field test on an international flight yesterday, I can say definitively that my labors have born fruit.

So here are a few tips from my upcoming book, How to Win Seats and Eat Apple Crumble. From the section, On the Airplane:

  1. Be vigilant in gathering information on your surroundings. What airline are you flying? What section of the plane will you be sitting in? Are you in an exit row? These seemingly insignificant details will be vital in your rise to the top of the social pyramid on the flight. Between Charles de Gaulle and Sea-Tac International airport, you’re only going to have eleven hours to make your mark. Any scrap of information could prove to be essential.
  2. Ingratiate yourself to the cabin crew. They will be the aristocracy in the New World Order you are establishing. Use flattery. This is where the information you gathered earlier will come in handy. Bear in mind that physical touch dramatically increases the impact of this technique. Press the Request Assistance button to call the flight attendant. Clasp his or her right hand between both of yours. Maintain eye contact, and draw upon your knowledge of the situation to invoke an immediate sense of ease and trust in this person. Something like, “You know, I’m never so happy in this life as I am when I fly Delta.” Do not remain seated for this. You should be above the eye level of the attendant. Try standing on your seat.
  3. Names hold a mysterious power over people. You can verify this yourself by invoking the name of someone you know. If you say the name loud enough, the person to whom it belongs will be powerless to resist your influence. They will be compelled, as if by some supernatural force, to turn towards you and say, “What?”. The louder you say the name, the more effective this technique. You can use this in combination with a simple request to quickly take the upper hand in any situation. Please note that you don’t need to shout the whole thing. Just raising the volume of your voice when you say the name will suffice: “Excuse me, could you put your tray table up, BARBARA?”

Tips four through 67 are not included in this sample edition of How to Win Seats and Eat Apple Crumble. So give me your hands, fellow computer user INSERT YOUR NAME HERE, because we’re all in this together. At least until you buy a copy of my book.

Love and apple crumble,

Bieu Hien

Your Long-Lost Friend

When your wandering eye lingers on a pair of knee-high boot socks, still in the packaging, don’t think for a second that this is just a meaningless, chance encounter. That kind of thinking is an epidemic in our society. From beginningless time, you and those boot socks have wandered through countless existences, meeting time and again in diverse forms. Now, you finally have the chance to express your love, and out of arrogance you dismiss them as just some pedestrian footwear.

 

I can tell you from experience that only to lay eyes on such a pair of socks can be a source of immense joy. The question is whether you know how to appreciate the bounty that is on offer from the universe.

 

Someone once asked me how we can change ourselves in the face of the overwhelming power of the unconscious. We are waylaid by our own hidden weaknesses and afflictions. Whatever project we undertake, we are sure to find in ourselves the greatest obstacle to our success. But all those difficulties come from the self-same primordial source, the undefinable storehouse of all potential phenomena, from which those boot socks arose. So we can hardly wish to overcome the thing that provides us with the very material of our happiness.

 

We want to enjoy knee-high boot socks, and we want to remove our afflictions, but how can we remove anything while leaving the source intact? And if the two come from the same source, are we also willing to let go of our boot socks in order to be free from our afflictions? This is a question that’s weighed heavily on me for the past five or six minutes, and so I pass it on to you for your consideration.

 

Until next time.

Monkey King of the World

If you’ve chanced upon the Plum Village Facebook page in the past few weeks, you may have noticed that mindfulness has a new face. I’ll save you the trouble of going to look:

His name is Ngo Khong, or Realization of Emptiness, otherwise known as the legendary Monkey King. His feats in this and prior lives are too numerable to mention, so I’ll just throw in a little quote from wikipedia:

Sun Wukong (Ngo Khong) possesses immense strength; he is able to lift his 17,550 lb staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 13,468 mi in one somersault. (Note that this is more than half way around the world).

Note also, that this beast’s go-to mode of travel is by somersault.

Last week he was charged with a Journey to the Northeast, whereby we were to take some monks to the airport and then pick some different monks up from a much later flight. I agreed to accompany him for spiritual support, and created a detailed schedule for the dead time between the two flights. We were to wander on foot around Bordeaux, performing spiritual wonders and converting the land to the way of the Buddhadharma. Of course fate had something else in store.

After a successful 5am drop-off at the airport, a great whirlwind swept up our van and placed it in the quiet beach-side village of Cap Ferret. As the sun rose, Ngo Khong peacefully composed a new plan to fulfill our mandate of bringing the light of awakening into the world.

One contemplative nap later, all was decided. We would build a great temple on this very spot, and when the local people saw the radiance and splendor, they would come and learn the Dharma. Ngo Khong somersaulted to some place in the world rich with the finest of building materials, and with his supersimian strength somersaulted back with a tarp and some bamboo. After a few false starts, our temple was erected.

What followed literally defies description, so I won’t even try to tell you about the great feats that took place in the refreshing lotus-blossom shade of that tarp. I can give you a hint and say that our practice of eliminating worldly desires was so successful that we almost arrived on time to pick up our monastic brothers in Bordeaux.

Here are a couple of watercolor sketches that came out of the day, some land art from Ngo Khong and a picture of some of the bunkers left over on the beach from WWII. Take care everyone.

Land art

 

Little Known Facts

I’d like to share some spiritual insights I had from a recent trip to the Louvre. First of all, if you’ve never been to the Louvre, you need to know that it’s huge. Ridiculously huge. And having visited before and made myself sick trying to take it all in, this time I limited myself to a single wing: Greek Old Stuff.

I saw an ad for the self-guided tour as I passed the welcome desk, and thought, why not? You get headphones, and an interactive tour-guide on a rented… Nintendo DS? Alas! Have the evils of worldly entertainment invaded even that sacred houses of art? Driven by my fear of eternal damnation, I gave the rental booth a wide berth and decided that I’d be giving myself true self-guided tour.

The amazing thing about ancient art is that it’s one of the only ways we can get in touch with our distant ancestors. What were they like? And more importantly, how did they look? These relics are our only hints. Starting about six to eight thousand years ago, we can see from these representations that mankind was still in a primitive stage, before the development of arms, legs, and heads. My sketchy understanding of evolution leads me to conject that the direct ancestor of these early Greek men was either a worm or a violin.

Next up, a couple thousand years more recent, we see the first primitive arms and legs developing. The head comes onto the scene, but without the facial features, which follow shortly thereafter beginning with the nose. How did the ancient Greek tell friend from foe? By sense of smell, apparently.

A little bit later, man starts to develop some muscle forms on the body, moving slowly towards the evolutionary pinnacle attained by the body-builders of today. I think we can safely assume that these guys originally had heads, and that they were removed to protect the anonymity of the models.

And finally, the human being comes into her own as the beautiful Venus de Milo, who is perfectly developed in physical form, yet still demonstrates the relative simplicity of the ancient Greek, who was still at pains to fully dress herself.

To give her a little bit of credit, she did get halfway there. Fully clothed humans probably didn’t evolve until sometime in the past couple of hundred years.

And finally I’d like to give a shout out to Apollo, who after vanquishing a serpent, took the first selfie in history some 2500 years ago. And also to this random guy, who last week took the 500,000th selfie in history in front of this statue of Apollo.

I thought, this is too much. I have to get this once-in-a-lifetime photo. Not so. If you stand next to this statue of Apollo for fifteen minutes, you’ll have a dozen chances to take the same photo. Oh and by way of apology to art people, this is actually a renaissance statue. Forgive me.

After my inspiring day, I made a couple little sketches in watercolor and gouache.

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Lost Masterpieces and Naked People

I don’t really want to bore you with more lame sketches, but when I was back home over the Winter my mom discovered a secret treasure trove that I just have to show you. First of all I should probably reintroduce myself:
My parents are moving out of my childhood home, and now that I’ve dried my tears I can tell you that it truly is the end of the world. There’s even an apocalyptic fire that consumes all things. My Dad started it, and not long after he threw in my favorite shoes. My yellow shoes. As if things weren’t hard enough. It was out of compassion though because I bought new ones, and my sunshine shoes had really seen better days. My luggage for the trip back to Plum Village was already pushing the weight limit anyway.
Moving is a lot of work, especially when you’ve spent over thirty years cramming little remembrances into every empty corner of a two-story house. My mom pulled box after box from the attic, and I learned about a peculiar habit of hers. Every time she would put a box into the attic, she would date it and write what everyone in the family was doing at that moment. What a wealth of strange little time capsules. And then there was the jackpot: my fourth grade art notebook. Upon coming back here and sorting through all my junk from the past six years, I also discovered a few gems, so I’d like to propose a tour of my artistic development.
First, the early days:
After about fifth grade I think I decided I wasn’t an artist, so there’s a brief hiatus here. These next ones are from when I first started up again about fifteen years later:
And finally, here’s some of the figure drawings I did during my sabbatical, about five years of practice later:
I’ll leave you with a few Springtime shots of France.